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Publisher's Summary

It was 1786 when Arthur Phillip, an ambitious captain in the Royal Navy, was assigned the formidable task of organizing an expedition to Australia in order to establish a penal colony. The squalid and turbulent prisons of London were overflowing, and crime was on the rise. Even the hulks sifting at anchor in the Thames were packed with malcontent criminals and petty thieves. So the English government decided to undertake the unprecedented move of shipping off its convicts to a largely unexplored landmass at the other end of the world.

Using the personal journals and documents that were kept during this expedition, historian/novelist Thomas Keneally re-creates the grueling overseas voyage, a hellish, suffocating journey that claimed the lives of many convicts. Miraculously, the fleet reached the shores of what was then called New South Wales in 1788, and after much trial and error, the crew managed to set up a rudimentary yet vibrant settlement. As governor of the colony, Phillip took on the challenges of dealing with unruly convicts, disgruntled officers, a bewildered and sometimes hostile native population, as well as such serious matters as food shortages and disease. Moving beyond Phillip, Keneally offers captivating portrayals of Aborigines, who both aided and opposed Phillip, and of the settlers, including convicts who were determined to overcome their pasts and begin anew.

With the authority of a renowned historian and the narrative grace of a brilliant novelist, Thomas Keneally offers an insider's perspective into the dramatic saga of the birth of a vibrant society in an unfamiliar land. A Commonwealth of Thieves immerses us in the fledgling penal colony and conjures up colorful scenes of the joy and heartbreak, the thrills and hardships that characterized those first four improbable years.

©2006 Thomas Keneally; (P)2006 Tantor Media, Inc.

Critic Reviews

"In the style of the best historians [Keneally] allows the intrinsic power of the tales he tells and the people who populate his pages to draw the reader into a fully elaborated universe." (The New York Times)
"Keneally has all the gifts of a great storyteller: a curious eye, a clear voice, worldly knowledge, and an innocent, inexhaustible heart." (San Francisco Chronicle)
"Keneally is joyfully inquisitive. He enters naturally and sympathetically into the hearts of his protagonists - his own prose takes on the flavour of the period he invokes." (Times Literary Supplement)
"Keneally's atmospheric and descriptive powers are formidable." (Boston Globe)
"Keneally has a gift for heroic stories." (Washington Post)

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  • Overall

Very detailed. Paints a vivid picture.

I wanted to read this book because I was curious about the birth of Australia as a penal colony. The book does a good job explaining the state of the penal system in 18th century britain, the types of convicts sentenced to transportation and the journey to the other side of the earth. There is good description of the landing at botany bay and sydney cove, the interactions with the aboriginies and the provisions on land but this book is screaming to be abridged. I feel like these 12 hours could have been wrapped up in 6.

3 of 3 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
  • Dan
  • palo alto, CA, USA
  • 08-23-07

Interesting tidbits, but slow overall

This book tells the story of the founding settlement of Australia, with detailed descriptions of the English penal system, details of maritime life, famines and other issues faced by the settlers, and the interactions with aboriginal tribes.

While I normally consume such historical novels, I found this one pretty tedious and slow. The narrative just never really seemed to pick up steam. Still, I did learn a decent amount about early Australia, which is worth something.

6 of 10 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
  • Performance
  • Story
  • Lesli
  • Moorpark, CA
  • 02-08-16

Really interesting but ...

Simon Vance is a wonderful narrator, but an Australian might have been nice. There were some mispronunciations of place names that were a bit jarring.

  • Overall
  • Shannon
  • honolulu, HI, USA
  • 10-26-09

entertaining listen

I "read" this prior to a recent trip to a Australia and I found it helpful. My Aussie friends kept saying how boring their history is, but I beg to differ..Australia's history is fascinating.

I was hoping for more background on the Aborigines, knowing full well that this book's main concern was on the colonists history. It did a great job in the telling of the colonist/convict struggle to survive.

Australia rocked by the way...can't wait to go back.